Low - Alan Sparhawk on Recording “Ones and Sixes” and Staying Relevant for 22 Years

Brave Days

Nov 17, 2015 Photography by Zoran Orlic Web Exclusive
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Alan Sparhawk says I caught him on a chatty day, something that seems to surprise him as much as it does me. Knowing him only through the 11 resolutely inward-looking albums he has made with Mimi Parker, his wife and co-leader in Low, I don't expect him to be quite so outgoing and approachable. But, for today at least, Sparhawk needs very little prodding, answering my first question with an unbroken 5-minute response that touches on themes I hadn't considered let alone inquired about. Though he's not the kind of person to brag about his accomplishments, he seems unusually excited to talk about the band's latest effort, Ones and Sixes. After 20 years of working in subtleties, he senses that this one is different.

In particular Sparhawk seems delighted that the album is a bit more obvious and in-your-face"aggressive" is the word that turns up most oftenand he seems to appreciate that Low is fortunate to still be discovering new territory this far into their musical journey. Recorded in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, in Justin Vernon's April Base studio, the band enlisted producer B.J. Burton to help push them into that previously unexplored terrain, resulting in an album that's louder, sharper, and a bit more immediate than most anything in their catalog. But it's also immediately recognizable as a Low album, a distinction that Sparhawk acknowledges even if he still puzzles over exactly what qualities define his work. Here, he explains how the band prioritized experimentation in the album-making process, how his musical interests have changed over the past two decades, and why he'd like the album's title to remain a mystery.

Matt Fink (Under the Radar): Heading into this record, do you think you had different goals sonically?

Alan Sparhawk: Yeah, sonically, for sure, it's different. We worked with this guy B.J. Burton, who is very forward-thinking. I met him when I was doing some producing of this band Trampled By Turtles a year or so ago. B.J. was the engineer on that, and just hanging out and getting to know him I got a sense that he would be a cool guy to work with. But he's very aggressive sonically, and it kind of fed into some things I was thinking on some of the songs we had going on already. It just seemed like he was the right guy. He works with Justin Vernon [Bon Iver] quite a bit, and a lot of the stuff Justin did with Kanye was stuff that B.J. was putting together.

I think some of the songs are really good, and they're for sure more complete and refined than some of the things on Drums and Guns. There are vocal sounds that are more brave, too. There are almost three or four different Mim voices on there. She's singing differently here and there, and there are a couple spots where I was like, "Is that Mim?" And then you listen to it, and you're like, "Yeah, it's her." As far as what it's about it, I don't know. I hate that question. I was thinking about this stuff the other day, and it has been quite a while that I've known that you write what's in front of you. You're influenced, no matter what that process is, and you're still much more beholden to reality and what you're going through than you want to admit. Having said that, some stuff is universal. We're at warsocial justice is in a very weird state right now. There's a lot of tension, like, "How do we transcend this moment?" Obviously, we have to or it's going to go south. There are those things [in the record]. I think it use the word "torture" somewhere.

At the same time, there's a lot of personal stuff in there. I think it's pretty obvious now that we've been a band for 20-some years. I've been married a long time, and that is a very weird angle on life. And yet it's in many ways the same things that everyone else goes through that has had a relationship and the process of working through that and the ups and downs and the selfishness and selflessness and the moments of understanding and seeing the big picture and the moments of confusion and whatnot. I feel like those things are always there, but more and more on this record.

It's one of those things. Like this Björk record that came out [Vulnicura]. I remember hearing it and it really hitting me, like, "Wow. You can just feel this sorrow!" I remember it really resonating and it being this thing that I could really recognize. And then a few days later I read something about how she broke up with Matthew Barney and it was about this and this and this, and I remember just feeling really gross. I didn't want anyone to tell me what this thing was about. I already knew what it was about, and when you put it into three or four words it ruins it. It's not like we've had something as extreme as that, but I feel like there are some things that are very much on the sleeve, maybe more than our past record. I don't know if they are significant events other than our ongoing struggle to have a family and make a relationship work, which just about everybody understands. I should shut up. I much more trust what you hear than what I'm going to say.

Which of these new songs was the first to emerge?

I feel like we've had "No Comprende" for quite a while, only because we were playing it live. That one, to me, was the flagship that indicated "Oh, I see where we're going now." Usually that's how it happens. We'll write a few songs and there will be a few songs that we'll have that will be the inspiration for finishing the record or finding the place for whatever new songs you come up with. You'll see how they fit with these core ones. That's how it gets put together. I would say "No Comprende" set the tone. That song, the very last one, "D.J." was pretty early on, as well. That one, to me, had a pretty strong element. Also, "Landslide." We've had that for a while, maybe a year. Maybe not even that. There's a line in there about the South China Sea, and I wrote that after that plane went down in Asia. That line inspired that. I remember writing that during that time. We had been playing that one live, as well, so we knew that was a major part in the record.

"No Comprende" in particular has a louder, more aggressive kind of feel. Did B.J. bring that to the mix or was that already there?

That was already there. He made it technically large. That ending where it drops, we already had. We had demoed the song, and I had that heavy drop at the end. I played it for B.J. and explained what I liked about it, and he was able to run with it and go for something bigger than I had done. I remember when I wrote it and hearing that and being like, "This cuts to half-time," and once you start playing it as a band, you start to think "Could this be even heavier? Could we pull this even harder?" So there's a little bit of refinement. Same as with B.J., at the end there's that drop, and that's something we had and it was just a matter of seeing how B.J. could make it happen and what the different options were.

How did you get to know B.J.?

I had worked with him. A couple years ago, out of the blue, he called our manager and invited us to April Base in Eau Claire, just to check it out. So we went there and saw it and met him. And then half a year later, I was doing this record with Trampled By Turtles and he was the engineer, and we sat around talking. I already knew he was interested in working with us, but [I was] hanging out with him and he pulled out some tracks he was working on. A lot of hip-hophe was playing me all of this stuff, and it was like, "Wow, man. This guy would do something really interesting with what we bring in." Sometimes when you know who you are going to work with, that's an inspiration, as well. It's like, "Well, we're going to work with this guy who is going to be brave. We better not hold back. Let's bring in some really aggressive material and something he can really take a bite out of." I was very ready to get him to do what he does, because I had already heard it and knew it was good.

Do you think you wrote these songs with him in mind as your first listener?

A little bit. We had a lot of material already. It's probably not that way with everybody, but when you know what you're in for and you know what kind of things you're going to play, it can be kind of creatively inspiring. It pushed us through. It's not so much that you're writing for that, but you're watching for certain decisions, like, "Do we go here or do we go there?" Well, what will be most interesting for this engineer to work on? What will most take advantage of this person we're working with? You could say we probably did a similar thing with [Jeff] Tweedy. We had all these tunes. We demoed them and we knew what we were getting into, and there were some surprises. But we went in there with some subtle songs, and we knew where his strengths and application would be, and we prepared knowing that this and this and this were going to be the options, and these were going to be the factors that this other factor is going to have a bearing on. Some stuff is very closed. I've yet to have anybody sit down and tell us how to sing or tell me how to play the guitar. The way we do things naturally, I don't think anyone necessarily wants to touch. But there's definitely room for how other people see it and how it gets filtered through. And depending on who it is, we can be pretty loose and open to where someone else's tendencies are. There's always a couple things that we know are an anchor, and once you have that, you can let everything else fly and land where it needs to.

After 20 years, do you think there's an anchor that holds together your body of work? Is there a thread that runs through it all?

It's definitely amorphous. It changes here and there. But I think from the beginning, the only thing that has changed is our perception and awareness of it. Early on, we weren't as self-aware. We were just doing this thing, and after a few records you start to see these commonalities and then you make a few records and try to get away from it, and you're like, "Nope, it's still there." Some of those anchors are the voices, and the way we sing, there's not a lot of talk about that or thinking or anybody coming in and saying, "Here, do this." Someday it would be interesting for someone to come in and really dig into that with us, but so far we haven't worked with anyone that felt the need to go into that. Voices, the toneI don't know. It's hard to describe. It's a certain intention. I don't know. [Laughs] I've come to just have faith that if it's us, no matter what we do it's going to sound like us. There's not necessarily a point in trying to prove that or force that, because I don't think that makes good music to force yourself. Even if you're forcing something, you still have to come to a point where it makes sense. It still has to stand on its own.

Do you think you're drawn to the same kinds of songwriting as when you started?

Probably not. It has definitely changed over the years. I think early on I was a little bit more technical, like, "Yeah, let's do this for longer" or "Okay, lets repeat this." It was more technical. Naturally, over time, you don't have to speak about it anymore. It just becomes natural. I know that nowadays I'm probably less inclined to go on and on with things. I think we definitely have songs here and there that merit going on for longer, but when I was younger I had more of a tendency to "when in doubt, repeat it." [Laughs] Now I love two-minute in-and-out songs as much as 20-minute drones.

Do you think that just comes with confidence, of not feeling like you have to be experimental to impress people?

I think over time you gain a little confidence, but it's mostly experience. You realize, "Yeah, this is frustrating, and I don't know what I'm doing. But I know from experience that if I keep working at it, eventually it will work out and still be honest." So there's that. I don't know if it's necessarily confidence as much as experience, like, "Oh, yeah. I remember this is a tough process" or "Yeah... I've done that. I don't need to do that again. I'll try to find something new." I don't know if it's as much confidence as you learn to weed out the things that are going to waste your time in getting to your goal. A lot of times, those things that are wasteful are the process of overthinking it. So, yeah, you can train yourself to avoid some of the things that are inevitable in writing. When you start with nothing, you're nothing. The first day trying to write something, you start from zero always.

How difficult is it not to repeat yourself at this point?

Well, I think it is something you have to be on top of, but I feel lucky that I don't feel like that comes up very often. Every once in a while, you have to wonder "Is this a step backwards?" or "Is this okay? We sound like that, but where does this song need to go beyond that?" I hope we don't repeat ourselves. I don't think we do. I know there's certain traits, and if someone listened to us long enough they could say, "Oh, yeah. Alan likes this certain chord" or "He likes to go from this one to this one a lot." And that's fine. We've been doing it for 22 years, and at the end of the day the music styles of the world haven't changed very much. At least [with] The Beatles, technology was changing so fast that it was super recognizable and styles were changing so fast. Now we have computers and stuff, but is there anything new happening in the last 22 years? Is anybody really creating anything new? Hip-hop and R&B are dominating Top 40, sprinkled in every once and a while with some folky person, and then your obligatory two or three Foo Fighters-type bands that are up on top playing arenas.

That's pretty much the trend. It hasn't gone to '50s to '60s to '70s. If you're looking back relatively in history, there have been some new things, but it's really not much. Point being, if you're a band that started doing one thing and has been continuing, and you've done 10 or 12 records by now, you're either repeating the same thing over and over again or you're all over the place in a certain way. I guess I hope we're more like that. I don't know that we think about it too much, other than just "Hey, let's not have the same song over and over again on the records." Obviously, there are times when I'm writing, and I have three or four songs and think, "Wow. These all have the same vibe." And you'll end up using only one or two of them sometimes. That's probably the most I've ever had to think about whether I'm repeating myself or we're progressing. What is the trajectory that we're on? I don't know.

It seems like constantly working with new producers has helped keep things new for you.

For sure. In fact, we always search for an inspiring or interesting recording situation, just because it is a positive sort of factor in helping you move forward. I like that. I like taking what we do and bringing it to someone who we trust or respect and letting their angles be enough of a wrench in the machine to make it do something interesting.

Finally, I was wondering about the album title. There must be some sort of symbolism there.

Ones and Sixes, yeah. That one has got a few cryptic meanings and stuff, and if I give away too many things it would ruin its power, I think. But I like the fact that there are a few things that are interesting about it. To me, I like the way it sounds when you sound it. "Ones and Sixes"it sounds kind of weird. And my daughter recently did this Pi contest where you try to memorize Pi for as long as you can, and she did really good. And it really started messing with me, and the idea of numbers as a long string of things and the moments when a pattern happens, like, "Oh, and then you get to the one section where there are ones and sixes." It's this weird thing where there appears to be a small pattern in what would otherwise look random, even though it's a finite thing.

And it's funny, because the guy who did the artwork for the record is this artist named Peter Liversidge, and we've worked with him before on some things. And I told him the title and he was like, "Oh, it's about the Internet." And apparently there's some term or scale where people measure Internet interest, and one is looking at the website, and then it goes up in scale to six, which is that the person would buy the product. So one to six is the difference between looking and buying. So I thought, "Oh, wow. That's too much meaning." But then I thought about it for a while, and thought "Well, that's an interesting twist." I'm not so big into referring to contemporary modern culture, but I don't mind it being the difference between looking and buying. But the way it sounds to me is the most [important]. We were going to title it I Ain't Your DJ, but I'm not sure that would translate to Britain. It would translate for America and not Britain. They know way more about DJs than we do.

[Note: These are extra portions of our interview with Low, quotes that didn't make it into our main print article on the band in the August/September/October Issue. Read that article here.]

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